Day 24 – London to San Francisco – Jan 7, 2011

Today was the day to leave to go back to our little slice of heaven in San Francisco. It was raining, which made leaving a lot easier.

The plan was to take a cab to Paddington Station to take the Heathrow Express, but the cab driver offered us a deal of 40£ to go straight to the airport. The cab to Paddington would have been half that, so it was a great deal, so we grabbed it. That also meant one stop and not having to drag bags anywhere was a treat. The driver was a large Scottish guy … very pleasant, but difficult to understand. We tipped him well for that one.

We checked in and made our way to the Virgin Atlantic airport club. OMG, it’s huge. There were at least 12 different areas to hang out, each one with a different character. One had a huge TV, several were very private with glass walls and doors. Several were opened – some set-up for food service, some for computer work, several for lounging. There was a deli and a full service restaurant – all for free. There was also a large spa with sauna, steam, pool, showers and more. I had a facial, Seb had a haircut. We could have had a massage, manicure or peticure, but we’d had enough.

We relaxed and enjoyed breakfast and some Champagne and worked on email, photos and blogs.

We left to board the plane and just as we were starting to board, they were asking people to get out of the plane. Apparently the pilot wasn’t happy with the vendor that did the security check on the plane and wanted it done again. A friend sent a note that there had been some Al Qaeda threats for London airports.

We got to go back to the club instead if sitting in the waiting area. We waited in comfort for a while and then boarded the plane.

The first class part of the plane was the same as on the way over. Everyone has their own little pod, each with TV and the little foot stool/guest seat. We got more “sleep suits”/pajamas, which we love and used on our trip, so getting another pair was an added bonus.

Naturally, we were treated very well with plenty of good food, drinks and snacks. We had a very tasty lunch, complete with white table cloth and napkins, all served on china, nice glassware and stainless utensils. After lunch we had our seats made into beds, complete with cloth padding and a duvet. I watched 2 movies and fell asleep for a few hours. After waking up, we had afternoon tea – little sandwiches, little burgers and little cupcakes. Everything was tasty and made the whole trip pass by faster.

Interesting note: There were some people on the flight that were also on our flight over. I can’t believe the odds of that happening. We’d talked about how they were so young and had 3 kids. Add that up and it’s not a cheap trip. Maybe they used points, like us?

Going though security and customs was a breeze … the easiest I’ve ever encountered. We were nearly first in line and had no inspections and sailed though.

We got in a cab and had the fastest cab ride between the airport and our home that I’ve ever experienced. I’m not sure why the cab driver was in such a big hurry, but I didn’t complain. Getting home fast was great.

Now it’s time for laundry, blogging, managing photos and relaxing.

All-in-all, it was a great trip. We had so many strokes of luck I can’t believe it – weather, flights, deals, and generally everything falling into place.

Day 23 – London – Jan 6

This was the last full day of the trip and I’d booked a short meeting with a client, so we decided to explore the area where we were meeting – Oxford Street. It’s the shopping street of London, but it was raining.

We’ve been so fortunate during most all of the trip with great weather all along the way, except the very beginning, with the snow, but we actually enjoyed that part a lot.

So we met Ben, had giant coffees and chatted. We left and went through a few shops and explored the neighborhood and went to see the Marble Arch, but the rain was clearly not fun, so we decided to head back to Harrods, which was on the list to have a late afternoon lunch in one of the food halls.

I’m so glad we decided to do this. We had suggestions from people for a variety of great sounding meals, but this turned out better than we could have ever hoped.

The food halls are divided into sections … fresh fruits and veges … deli foods to go … tea and candy … and one that’s got little counters that are all divided into individual specialties – oysters and other shell fish, dim sum, sushi, caviar and Champagne, and a rotisserie one. We wanted chicken, but there was a line, so we decided to have a class of wine while we waited for the line to die down. We sat down, ordered small bottles of wine – Seb had Sancerre and I had Beaujolais. They had very limited choices, but both were amazing. Not just good, but amazing. I’m not a fan of white wine, but the Sancerre was really the best white wine I’ve tasted. Maybe it was the ambiance of the most beautiful food hall I’ve ever seen, but I don’t think so.

As I mentioned, we were at a counter on very cool little stools, a bit like an old fashioned ice cream counter, but nicer … much nicer. We were sitting next to two nicely dressed women who appeared to be friends relaxing after a little shopping. One noticed that Seb had ordered the Sancerre and made a comment that it was her favorite. From there, we started a conversation that lasted at least an hour. They were speaking French, but they also managed to speak a lot of English too. We all had a lot of fun talking about everything … having fun, finding husbands, fashion, professions, Provence, Sarlat, Marseille, Morocco and on and on. It turned out that they were mother and daughter. The daughter had spent time in San Antonio, TX as a foreign exchange student. The mother has a home in Marseille and Morocco and was clearly a fun woman. Her daughter said she was crazy, but I know she meant it in a good way. I loved our little interaction and would love to connect with them again. Who knows?

After our amazing lunch, we headed back to the hotel to pack and prepare to leave in the morning. We had a little cake left, so that finished that off and after another wonderful day, we laid back and watched a little international TV.

Day 22 – London – Jan 5

Today, we decided to walk from our hotel down to the Tower Bridge, which is the famous bridge that many people think is the London Bridge.

Funny story about the bridge … London was selling the old London Bridge in 1962 and a US developer caught wind of it and wanted it to be part of a big development – Lake Havasu, in Arizona. There’s a rumor that he thought he was buying the Tower Bridge, but that rumor was never substantiated.

We walked a lot, but managed to stop for a quick lunch at a tavern next to the Globe Theater, the famous Shakespeare Theater of London. Lunch was interesting. I caught a sign “Free soup with drink”. We each had a great tasting beer and got some fresh, hot broccoli soup with some really tasty bread and butter. This was a big money saver with a grand total of about $8. Wow … 2 big beers and 2 soups.

After exploring the Tower Bridge, we decided to head to King’s Cross Station where we we’d catch the train to go meet a friend for dinner in Cambridge.

Since we’d been using Eurail Passes for France train travel, our train rides were paid for. This was not. We bought tickets for the 50 minute ride to Cambridge and the total for both of us was about $60 round trip … not cheap.

We met our friend Ray and he showed us around Cambridge. What a beautiful spot and I’d love to go back and explore more. I learned that it’s made up of a lot of individual colleges and was started by kings and other high ranking men who wanted to show the world that they cared about education. Nevertheless, it’s beautiful and loaded with history.

We had a great meal at Brown’s, a restaurant that’s well known for good English food with a twist. The twist is usually that it’s more modern using fresh ingredients, unique combinations of ingredients and favors. I had a pork dish that also had pork crackling pieces on a fresh salad. The creamed spinach wasn’t the typical heavily creamy sauce. The sauce was thin, but very flavorful – like rich cream. It was delicious.

We took the train back to London, the tube back to the hotel and had birthday cake for dessert. YUM!!!

Day 21 – London – Jan 4

We started the day with breakfast at the hotel with a glass of Prosecco to toast my birthday. As we were leaving, one of the restaurant people was walking behind us, trying to catch up. She had a small cake on a large plate with chocolate piping on it – Happy Birthday. What a nice surprise. We decided to leave it for dessert tonight.

Then I went to the spa to enjoy my birthday gift from Seb – a massage. NICE and well needed.

After getting a complete refresh, we took the tube to Canary Wharf, through the Docklands and to Greenwich to make sure their clocks were set correctly. After searching all over London last night, we walked by at least 4 places that served fish and chips, so we ceased the opportunity and dug into some. We got haddock and cod and split both. I like the cod best. We also shared a scotch egg and some champagne. The place was not much, but not a dump either. Seb saw the group across the room get some Mars bars battered and fried. Hmmm. Not sure about that, but I’ve heard about how people here were frying all kinds of things in the same batter and oil.

After riding back to town, we ended up going all the way to Knightsbridge for a little overview of Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Oh boy, the food halls look as beautiful as ever in both department stores. Harrods is clearly the winner when it comes to variety and the beautiful arrangement of every commodity. We bought some things to bring back for dinner and at 9.30 we’re not hungry, so may have to hold things over. We’ll see.

When we got looked like the maids had moved the cake to the living room part of our room, but no … they’d brought another cake – the same style and all. OMG, now we each have our own cake. We may have cake until we leave on Friday.

Day 20 – Paris to London – Jan 3

We started with a great breakfast at the hotel and then walked around the area of Mama Shelter Hotel. The whole neighborhood was active at 8am. People were heading for work by walking, driving a car, motor scooter, motorcycle or making their way to the metro or a bus. There were a lot of parents walking children to school and at busy intersections, there were crossing guards.

After milling around, we gathered our things and headed to the Gare du Nord rail station to take the Eurostar (the fast train under the English Channel again).

The Eurostar took us to the St. Pancras rail station in London. It’s interesting to note that the train itself seems a bit dated, compared to the TVG in France. Both are very fast, but the French have continued to expand the system constantly. The TGV is truly the way to go in France.

Without hesitation, we took a cab to Park Plaza Westminister Bridge Hotel, where we’d spent one night on the first part of this trip. We checked into the suite we’d reserved from back home … with what they called the “Iconic View”, which gave us a view of Big Ben and the London Eye. What a treat to see these two sites from our room.

We’d been talking about fish and chips and from my trips before, it was an easy thing to do, so we decided we definitely wanted to find fish and chips for dinner. Sounds simple, huh? Well, since we stayed in the Waterloo Station area, it seemed like an easy thing to have, given the area. Well, we looked for a place Seb found online and it was closed, due to a bank holiday. Determined to have some, we went back to the train station and asked a woman at the information station. She said there was one in the station downstairs, but made it seem unappealing and she kind of lit up when she mentioned another one outside the station and turn right. We’ve since learned that directions from the English always sound so simple until you take a few steps away and then nothing seems to make sense. They tend to talk fast and use slang, so even though it’s English, it’s not simple. We thought we followed her directions, but ended up at a fancy fish restaurant with big platters of lobster and shrimp, which looked great, but not exactly what we had in mind.

We decided to venture to Leicester Square to see some sights and just mill around while looking for our fish and chips place. It was really busy, due to the holiday, which took some of the fun out of exploring. On the other hand, it did add to the excitement. We wandered over to Piccadilly Circus, which is similar to Times Square in New York.

After walking a lot, food was starting to sound good, but clearly we were not in the right neighborhood for what we’re looking for. I remembered staying in Earl’s Court, a regular London neighborhood and seeing a lot of fish and chips shops there, so we hopped onto the tube (London’s metro) to Earl’s Court. We got out to the street and it seemed very different than I’d remembered. It seems that the whole area has changed and become more sophisticated. There were a lot of nice looking restaurants, but we were holding out for our goal.

We stopped someone on the street and asked for help to find a place. He was very kind and did know of one, but at a different tube stop. We hopped on and went, came out and asked a policeman in the tube station and he said he knew it, but his friend just told him a week ago that it had closed. We asked if he know of another one and he did, but at a different tube stop. We went for it. We got there and guess what? Closed. OMG … this had become a little too challenging. Neither of us had interest in continuing, so we went to a M&S Food Only. Marks and Spencer is an old clothing and food chain that’s a little like Sears or JC Penny’s. Lately, they’ve started a chain of food stores that are loaded with fresh, frozen and prepared food. They’re pretty amazing and full of way to many choices. We ended up getting some Indian food that needed only heat. We had a microwave in the suite, so we just did it. It turned out that it was all just OK, but we didn’t mind.

We ended up watching some English TV and called it a day.

Day 19 – Bordeaux to Paris – Jan 2

Breakfast at the hotel seemed like the best idea to save time and keep things simple.

Since we had a few hours before getting on the train to Paris, we decided to mill around Bordeaux for some early morning photos, based on a discussion we had last night with our desk clerk/bartender. She had some great ideas and we visited all the sites she mentioned, plus a little exploration of our own. We’ve been to Bordeaux before, so we knew our way around and managed to use the local metro to make it more efficient. It all worked and we got some photos and then we were off to the train station to leave for Paris.

The TGV makes crossing large expanses a piece of cake. Bordeaux to Paris is only a 3 hour trip. We had a bottle of wine and some food from Paul – Seb had a baguette sandwich and I had a quiche with salmon and spinach. Since we were sans glasses, I volunteered to get us some water, which would also give us the glasses we needed. I went to the cafe car and hesitantly got in line, which was already at least 12 people long. I decided to stick it out and go for it. After 45 minutes, I couldn’t believe I only made it to position #3 in the line. I couldn’t believe how patient everyone was. This is so French. No one complains with any more than a look between each other. No tempers flared and the only guy behind the counter was still very pleasant, greeting each person with a smile and a Bon Jour. He also made sure each order had the proper spoon, knife, and accoutrements. Some people were ordering complete meals, which complicated things, but in the true French style, even food on the train is tasty and well prepared.

F i n a l l y , I ordered 2 bottled waters and made my way back to our seats. We popped opened the 7 € bottle of St. Emilion we bought at a big discount store several days earlier. It was amazing. Lunch on the train totaled about 14 € (about $18). A similar bottle of St. Emilion here in SF could easily cost $30. I love France for this – good food, wine and dessert are all cheap.

We arrive refreshed, and ready to hop in a cab from the train station, Gare Mont Parnasse, to our cool hotel, Mama Shelter, near Pere la Chaise, the famous cemetery in Paris. We’d hoped to have a little time to explore it, but sadly, we left it for another trip. Can’t do it all.

Our hotel was quite an experience. It was designed by Philippe Starck, so it was loaded with surprises. There was a Batman and Superman mask in the room – one on each side of the bed. They were covering hand lamps with long cords, normally used in construction … yellow florescent lights inside plastic tubes. These were the bedside lights. Silly fun. Nothing was normal and all fun and quirky.

We had a couple Hendricks and tonics and ordered a few little apps, then walked around the area, only to discover it was not anything close to a touristy area. The neighborhood was made-up of average Parisians living, working and maintaining their home, children and pets. It was very refreshing to mingle with the people who aren’t connected to the tourist industry. It had it’s own version of cool. The hotel seemed very misplaced, but that was the goal. I’m sure there were many other hotels that were a lot cheaper, but we wanted to experience it … and the area. It’s the 20th Arrondissement, which is far from the 1st, where the Arch de Triumph is.

We ended up picking up 2 burgers from a dump near the hotel. We thought the price was really cheap – 2 burgers with cheese and bacon, fries and a canned drink – about $15. When we got to the hotel and they were very small burgers. Actually, they were perfect, but a little funny.